Athlete of the Week: NMB’s Johnson keeps it in family

North Myrtle Beach junior Ellen Johnson grew up in a volleyball family, and that family as grown to include her Lady Chiefs teammates.

Johnson credits team togetherness and a family atmosphere for getting the Lady Chiefs off to a hot 21-1 start, and hopefully an even hotter finish.

“Both of my parents played volleyball and my big sister (Megan) plays at Erskine College, so I’ve been playing for as long as I can remember,” said Johnson, who was voted the Mammy’s Kitchen Athlete of the Week. “I’ve played other sports but I decided to focus on volleyball and play year-round (for Grand Strand Juniors).

“We only have two new players this season and we played with them in the club season, so we’re all really close. The big thing for us is team bonding outside volleyball, having team sleep-overs and going to school functions. It’s really brought us closer together and it shows on the volleyball court.”

North Myrtle Beach coach Estelle Barentine recalls Johnson coming to practice well before she was old enough to join the Lady Chiefs.

“I can remember when her sister, Megan, was in seventh grade and Ellen (fourth grade) would come with her dad to practice sometimes,” she said. “He was hitting so hard to her and she was passing the ball up with a great deal of success. She just keeps on improving year to year.”

Especially this season, when the junior has 109 kills as outside hitter and has only three errors on 232 serves with 25 aces as a back-row player. Her versatility and consistency make her a key cog in the team’s strong season and lofty goal – to win the Class AAA state championship.

“(Barentine) told us that from beginning of summer practice,” Johnson said. “We sat down and wrote our team goals and that was what we agreed on. We want to make it to that final game. We’re still working on what we need to do to get there and we keep pushing ourselves to make it happen.”

Johnson says the turning point to their season may have come at the very beginning, when the Lady Chiefs lost to Class AAAA state power Aiken in the Carolina Forest Classic. They have rattled off 19 straight victories since that loss, which served as a wake-up call that there are other tough teams out there.

“We didn’t know much about the Upper State teams until then. We are excited to win big in our region, but we keep reminding ourselves that our region is not giving us much competition but there are some great teams outside our region. It really opened our eyes that we have a big challenge in the playoffs.”

With that said, it was a 3-1 win over defending region champion Myrtle Beach that may have helped the Lady Chiefs turn that corner. North Myrtle Beach hadn’t lost a single game in region play entering the match with the Lady Seahawks, who took a 1-0 lead to get the Lady Chiefs’ attention.

“when we lost our first game to Myrtle Beach it was like a big wake-up call,” Johnson said. “We came back and won three straight sets, but we had to make sure we have the right attitude. Obviously they are our biggest rivals and the (reigning) region champs, so that one was a big one for us.”

Now the Lady Chiefs are focused on winning their region and making a run at the state title. With Taylor Allman and four other seniors getting their last chance to win it all, Johnson and her fellow underclassmen wants to win one for them, and set the tone that North Myrtle Beach is the team to beat.

“We’ve got Senior Night coming up Thursday and we’ve got five senors playing their final home games,” she said. “We really want to send them out with the region title and even more in the playoffs. We’re losing five seniors so we know we’re going to have another rebuilding year next season, so we want to win it all this year.”

Johnson has her senior year still ahead of her, and hopefully a college volleyball career down the road. She is taking honors courses at Coastal Carolina to prepare academically, and her volleyball game is starting to catch the attention of college scouts. With a little luck, she will continue the family volleyball tradition.

Photo by Digital Magic Photo

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